How Does a Computer Connect to the Internet?

March 18, 2020 • Shannon Flynn

You probably use the internet every day. Whether you’re
checking your emails at work or browsing social media on your phone, you get on
the web pretty much everywhere you go. But have you ever stopped to wonder how
computers connect to the internet?

For something so familiar and even essential to modern
life, internet connectivity is something of a mystery to many people. Sure, you
know how to connect your device to nearby Wi-Fi and maybe how to troubleshoot
your connection. But do you know what’s happening when you get online?

There are multiple ways you can connect to the internet,
but you probably use Wi-Fi most often. Sometimes quoted as a short term for
“wireless fidelity,” Wi-Fi came about in 1997 and has since become the
standard for internet connectivity. Here’s how it works.

How Does Wi-Fi Work?

Wi-Fi is like an advanced form of radio communication.
When you turn on the radio, you receive a signal carried over radio waves from
a transmitter at whatever station you’re listening to at that moment. Your
computer and Wi-Fi routers are like a two-way radio, both devices sending and
receiving signals over invisible wavelengths.

Your Wi-Fi setup may include both a router and a modem or
just the router. A modem connects to your internet service provider (ISP)
through a cable, bringing the internet into your home. Your modem sends this
signal to your router through an ethernet cable, and then your router sends
wireless signals via radio waves throughout your house.

Depending on your connection, you may not have a modem,
and instead, your router plugs directly into the wall. Either way, your router
emits radio waves that your computer or phone can use to communicate with it.
This communication works using internet protocol (IP) addresses.

How to Use IP Addresses

IP addresses work
like physical addresses
, giving people and systems a place to send
information. Every internet-capable device you own has a unique IP address,
just like how every house has an individual mailing address. Any bit of data
traveling over the internet is like a letter, coming from one address to
another.

Different Wi-Fi signals are like different postal
carriers. When you connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you start using that carrier to
send and receive these digital letters. But instead of going to a different
building to hand in your mail, you tune in to a different radio signal.

Just like radio waves come in multiple wavelengths, Wi-Fi
can use one of two different frequencies to operate.
Wi-Fi can send signals over either 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) or 5 GHz. 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi
reaches farther, but 5 GHz connections can carry more data at one time. You can
either choose a specific frequency manually or set your router to adjust
automatically.

A lot of Wi-Fi networks come with security measures — most
often Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). WPA, WPA2 and WPA3 are security protocols
that encrypt, or scramble, data and require you to input a password to use the
network. Once you enter the correct password, your computer and the router
start sharing information freely.

Other Ways of Connecting to the Internet

To summarize, Wi-Fi works by sending radio waves to and
from your computer and a router. But you can connect your computer to the
internet by other methods too. While Wi-Fi is the most common way, it’s not the
only one.

Using an ethernet cable, you can connect your device to
your router or modem without relying on a wireless signal. Your computer and
modem will send data to each other over the cable in the same way your modem
connects to your router. This method is like using a landline instead of a cell
phone.

If you used the internet in the 1990s or early 2000s, you
might remember dial-up connections. Now obsolete, dial-up once used phone lines
to connect your modem and computer to the internet.  

Hopefully, the wonderful world of the web is a little less mysterious to you after learning how a computer connects to the internet. You can now go and use Wi-Fi freely without wondering what’s going on inside your device.

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